José Leonilson

Americas Society
680 Park Avenue
September 27–February 3

José Leonilson, O ilha (The Island One), 1991, thread and metal on canvas, 14 x 11".

José Leonilson was born in Fortaleza, Brazil, in 1957––seven years before the military coup that kept the country under the rule of military dictatorship until 1985. He spent most of his career working in São Paulo and traveling around the world until his untimely death due to complications resulting from AIDS in 1993, at the age of thirty-six. While his career was coterminous with the rise of the 1980s generation of Brazilian painters exploring a postdictatorship Brazil, his complex and diaristic intimacies set him apart from his peers.

Leonilson once said that he only made work intended for people he loved. Works on view here include collage, fabric assemblages, paintings, and drawings that use poetics and other discursive strategies to grapple with an emotional self-portraiture under a death sentence. O ilha (The Island One), 1991, is a small, spare canvas with an enrobed figure embroidered onto the surface. He stands next to the Portuguese title—a combination of masculine article and feminine noun—atop the words “handsome, selfish.” The work processes Catholic religiosity, familial fealty, and desire through a queered metaphor for loneliness. Saquinho (Small Bag), 1992, is a vibrant orange pouch, cinched tightly with copper wire and embroidered with Leonilson’s initials, “J. L.,” and his age at the time, “35.” It is a rendering of the self as vessel, container, pocket. We are left to wonder if the bag is representative of him keeping his diagnosis from his family or if it is a work about trying to hold onto something of himself before cachexia set in.

This exquisite and intelligently curated survey also lays bare a certain institutional egregiousness. We are indeed lucky to be gifted with this first-ever solo exhibition of Leonilson’s work in the United States; however, it begs the question: Why, despite the commercial and institutional visibility of artists who deal with sexuality, mortality, and disease, such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres and David Wojnarowicz, has a body of work of this political importance and poetic urgency remained largely unknown?

John Arthur Peetz